Endangered Language Alliance



Gurung

a Tibeto-Burman language of Nepal

Background

Gurung is an endangered Sino-Tibetan language spoken in central Nepal by a reported 325,000 people, with additional speakers residing outside of Nepal’s borders (Government of Nepal census 2011). Like many minority languages of Nepal, the language has been in contact with both Nepali and a number of other Sino-Tibetan languages, including Ghale, Manange, Newar, Sherpa, Tamang, Thakali, and Tibetan (Gurung et al. 2006, Mazaudon 2005).

Affiliation

Linguists have consistently agreed that Gurung is closely related to Tamang, Thakali, and Manange~Gyasumdo (alternately called Manangke or Manangba by some authors), forming a subgroup referred to as Tamang-Gurung-Thakali-Manange, or TGTM (Glover 1971, Hildebrandt 2004 & 2007a, Mazaudon 1988 & 2005), or often as Tamangish (van Driem 2011) and sometimes as West Bodish (Bradley 1997). Other smaller varieties of this subgroup include Nar Phu (Noonan 2003) and Chantyal (Noonan 2003). The Ghale and Kaike languages have recently been found to differ from Tamangish proper in historically important ways, and thus the name “Tamangic,” originally used synonymously for TGTM/Tamangish, has taken on the broader sense of Kaike-Ghale-Tamangish (van Driem 2011).

For Gurung, linguists have identified 14 distinct dialect groups that cluster into two larger groups: East Gurung and West Gurung (Glover & Landon 1975). As Glover and Landon (1975) point out, the distribution of these 14 dialects and their similarity to each other is largely shaped by the geography of the region in which they are spoken – namely the steep slopes and river valleys of the Himalayas – which limits contact between some communities while facilitating contact between others. While the dialects comprising West Gurung generally tend to resemble each other, the dialects of East Gurung show more variation, and collectively East Gurung and West Gurung are not generally mutually intelligible (Glover & Landon 1975, Lewis, Simons & Fennig 2015).

Endangerment

As is the case with many other Sino-Tibetan languages, Gurung’s threatened status is due not to a dwindling population, but rather to a decreasing rate of language transmission from one generation to the next and an increasing use of Nepali as the lingua franca across all of Nepal, according to the recent Sociolingustic Survey of Gurung in Nepal (Swenson 2015). Quantifying the current number of speakers is complicated by the fact that Gurung is the name of both a language and an ethnic group. People who identify as ethnic Gurung are not necessarily speakers of Gurung, and some Gurung speakers are not necessarily members of the ethnic group (Glover & Landon 1975). 

Academic Work

The influence of Nepali is a recurring theme in the literature on all TGTM languages; for Gurung it reaches back to some of the first documentation work on the language (Glover 1969). The bulk of linguistic documentation and research on this language, including the data in this paper, has been conducted on dialects of West Gurung.

Glover’s paper was the first of several to focuses on Gurung’s contrastive tone system and its relationship with register (namely contrastive breathy phonation) and word-initial obstruent voicing. These three aspects of Gurung phonology – tone, register, and obstruent voicing – have been the focus of much of the existing literature.

See the Glottolog entry for Gurung

Gurung in New York

In New York, a community of several hundred Gurungs live in and around the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, where the Gurung (Tamu) Society is also based. Most members of this community, however, do not speak the Gurung language.

ELA’s Work

ELA researchers have worked with Narayan Gurung, who lives in New York and is the former president of the Gurung (Tamu) Society, to document his previously undescribed dialect of Sikles village, spoken northeast of Pokhara in Nepal’s Kaski District. The Sikles dialect is generally intelligible with Western Gurung dialects

Over several years, a number of students and researchers have worked on the project: Peter Graif, Perry Wong, Chris Geissler, Robert Knight, Danielle Ronkos, Zach Wellstood, and Lingzi Zhuang. Current team members are completing a sketch grammar based on spoken texts of a variety of genres, and have produced a number of topical studies, including one on initial devoicing and low tone register, and another one on Gurung’s multifunctional transitivity-altering morphology. A number of recorded dialogues and interviews with speakers of different dialects have also been collected.